Dear Readers, I have something of an ambivalent relationship with Halloween, having been inundated with over 300 separate visits in four hours when I once left a pumpkin outside the door. All that sugar! All that waste! But how the children seem to love it. This year, there is going to be a Halloween Trail in our area – participating people will leave pumpkins or other ‘spooky’ things in their windows, and every time a child spots one, the parents will give them a sweet. No knocking on doors, no gathering in crowds, no traipsing the streets in a green wig and a mini-skirt pretending to be a ‘sexy alien’. This has been a tough time for every one, but my heart really goes out to young people, the older ones trapped in their rooms on university campuses all over the country, the younger ones too little to understand what the hell is going on.
Another reason that I find Halloween a bit suspect is that it trivialises a time which, in previous generations, was much closer to the idea of the beginning of winter, the fading of the light, and the nearness of our ancestors. In some cultures, people would set a place at table for their beloved dead and in the not too distant past, farm animals would be walked between bonfires to protect them from evil and to help them last through the winter. It’s all a bit of a far cry from plastic pumpkins and that blooming horrible spray spiders-web stuff that is still stuck in the hedges in April. And don’t get me started on the fireworks, which kick off for Diwali in October and don’t end until after the New Year. My poor cat is on high alert for the whole time, sneaking from room to room with her belly to the ground like a furry commando.
Harrumph. But nonetheless, humans do love to be scared in a safe environment, and so some perfectly innocent animals have been designated as ‘spooky’. So on to this week’s quiz. Here are a selection of UK animals associated with Halloween. Let’s see if you can identify them all!
As usual, answers in by 5 p.m. UK time on Thursday please, if you’d like to be marked. As some people are extremely speedy with their answers, write your responses down on a piece of paper if you don’t want to be influenced :-).
Choose your answers from the list below. So, if you think that critter a) is a brown rat, your answer is 1) a) (and a visit to the optician is probably called for 🙂 )
a) Brown Rat (Rattus norvegicus)
b) Cellar Spider (Pholcus phalangiodes)
c) Giant House Spider (Tegenaria gigantea)
d) Noctule (Nyctalus noctula)
e) Harvestman (Phalangium opilio)
f) Nursery Web Spider (Pisaura mirabilis)
g) Black Rat (Rattus rattus)
h) Ladybird Spider(Eresus Sandaliatus)
i) Greater Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum)
Dear Readers, this week we had a three-way 100% tie at the top of the leader board, with Christine, Fran and Bobby and Mike over at Alittlebitoutoffocus all scoring a stunning 16/16, well done to all of you! Let’s see how you get on tomorrow when spookiness will abound….
Dear Readers, it isn’t often that I start to rave about a book before I’ve even finished it, but I am enjoying ‘Owls of the Eastern Ice’ so much that I wanted to share it with you right this minute. The author, Jonathan C. Slaght, spent four seasons trying to find the world’s largest owl, Blakiston’s fish owl (Bubo blakistonii), in order to work out a conservation strategy. His first encounter with the bird was in 2000 in Primorye, in the far north east of Russia. He describes the bird, which stands up to 28 inches tall and has a maximum wingspan of over 6 feet, thus:
‘…it seemed almost too big and too comical to be a real bird, as if someone had hastily glued fistfuls of feathers to a yearling bear, then propped the dazed beast into a tree’.
The bird’s limited range includes Japan, where it is viewed as a divine being – ‘Kotan koru Kamuy (God that Protects the Village)’. Its population in this country is still only 100-150 birds, but the numbers seem to be recovering slowly. In Primorye, where Slaght is surveying, it’s estimated that there are 200-400 birds, but they are shot by trappers, caught in hunting snares and fishing nets. Furthermore, the whole area is being eyed up by logging companies. It’s clear to Slaght that he needs to find out where the birds are and come up with some kind of plan for protected areas while there are still owls left.
It is clear that Slaght is almost monomaniacal in his readiness to suffer all kinds of privation in his pursuit of the owl. Primorye is not an easy area to work in at the best of times, but his familiarity with how to work in this part of the world helps. As he waits to board a helicopter that will take him to the village of Agzu, where his mission will start, he follows a well-honed routine to make sure that he’s able to find a seat on the over-crowded chopper:
‘I positioned myself behind a stout older woman: experience showed that my best chance of securing a bus seat was by tailing such a person, a technique not unlike following an ambulance through traffic, and I assumed this rule held for helicopters as well’.
Not that I am advocating tailgating an ambulance obviously, but there is much to be said for observing the elders of any community, who usually know exactly what to do in these situations.
When Slaght arrives, it’s clear that the accommodation is going to be, well, basic:
‘I breathed in frigid, stale air, heavy with the stench of wood smoke and cigarettes. The building had remained sealed and unheated inside since its owner had left for the forest, and the cold could suppress only so much of the room’s acquired aroma. Bits of plaster from the crumbling walls littered the floor and mixed with crushed cigarette butts and spent tea bags around the woodstove.‘
And then there’s the vodka. Local custom has it that if a bottle of vodka is put on the table, no one is allowed to leave until it’s empty. Whilst Slaght is a self-confessed lightweight on the drinking front, he can hold his own on that other test of masculinity, the banya, or sauna.
‘Chepelev eyed me carefully throughout the experience; he appeared to expect me to balk at the intense heat or somehow mishandle the ritual. As I emerged naked and steaming onto the banya’s icy porch, I could sense him still watching me, perhaps surprised that I had made it that far without complaint or capitulation. Had I been alone, at this point I would have stood silently enjoying the quiet of the night and my temporary inperviousness to the deep cold, but instead I scooped up handfuls of snow and rubbed them vigorously on my face, neck and chest. When I finished, Chepelev was nodding his approval.’
Now, lest you think that our author is setting himself up as some kind of James Bond figure, be reassured that he is a much more modest companion that this incident makes him seem. He is forever getting soaked to the skin in melting ice-water, fails to notice the signs of the fish owl at first, and is aware of how much he is reliant on the Russian guides and naturalists who are working with him. He is able to conjure a real sense of the strangeness of this place, the harshness of it and also the beauty. He watches as a roe deer, pursued by one of the local hunting dogs, jumps into the river, and is carried away under the ice:
‘From my low vantage point among the roots, I could see only the deer’s head – snout held high and nostrils flared-bobbing above the clean line of the river surface. The deer pushed briefly against the flow and then succumbed to it, drifting like a rudderless boat, then disappearing from view at the downstream lip of the ice…..I returned to my tree hole, stunned by the quiet violence of this place‘.
Well, it turns out that, as expected, the owls are not easy to find. They make nests in the enormous trees of the forest (another reason to be worried about logging), but these can sometimes only be spotted by a stray feather, or by the guano on the ground, which is buried by snow in the winter. The birds themselves are extremely elusive, the only sight of one usually being its enormous backside as it disappears through the trees. But they do have a very distinctive, deep, call – two notes for an individual, four notes when a male and female duet together (much as tawny owls do). I was so intrigued by Slaght’s description of the call that I had to seek out a recording for you, though you’ll have to wait patiently for the owls to call. Just pretend you’re in a Russian forest 🙂
‘Certain noises in the forest – a deer bark, a rifle shot, even a songbird warble- are sonorous eruptions that catch one’s attention immediately. The fish owl duet was different. Breathy, low, and organic, the call pulsed through the forest, hiding among the creaking trees and bending with the rushing river. It was the sound of something ancient and in its place‘.
I think the single owl sounds rather like Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’. See what you think.
And so, with 28% of the book read, Slaght has found a nesting tree, has heard owls duetting, and has finally found an owl sitting on the nest. But for his efforts to succeed, he will need to find and capture owls so that their condition can be assessed. I have no idea if they plan to radio track the birds, and wait with some eagerness to see.
‘Owls of the Eastern Ice’ seems to me to be a perfect lockdown book, especially with winter coming on. I can’t travel, but Slaght takes me to a part of the world that I doubt I’ll ever see. He suffers all manner of physical deprivations, while I can take it all in from the comfort of an armchair with a mug of hot chocolate next to me. And I am learning about these magnificent birds almost by default, absorbing all kinds of facts. Who knew, for example, that the ‘pellet’ of a fish owl is more or less made up of bones, unlike the furry offerings of owls who feed on mammalian prey? Or that they largely hunt by wading in the water or perching on a branch, rather than diving from a height like ospreys? All in all a fascinating read, about the long, hard, patient work of a field conservationist, the people that Slaght meets and, above all, about the Primorye forest and its enigmatic fish owl.
Dear Readers, I wrote a long post about Japanese Maples last year, and such is my enthusiasm for them that I almost did it all over again this afternoon, having forgotten that I had featured it previously. However, I couldn’t miss the chance to share one of my favourite local trees with you. This Japanese Maple has burst into such extraordinary colour this year that it draws the eye as soon as you enter the street. It is the only substantial plant in the front garden, as there isn’t room for anything else, but at the moment it glows like a beacon. My husband got this (admittedly blurred) photo of the tree when it was absolutely at its height last week, and while the colour might look a bit over-saturated, I’m sure you get the idea.
Although today the plant is very slightly past its best (it was very windy over the weekend) it is still touched with fire.
There is something to be said for allowing a single extraordinary plant to take the room it needs to be truly magnificent, even if it means that for the rest of the year there is a more subtle display. There is an elegance about this Acer that I’m sure will make it noteworthy at any time of year. I admire the confidence of this home-owner, and their willingness to let this beautiful tree slowly develop over time, and take up so much space. Nearly every Japanese Maple that I see is wind-damaged, with the delicate leaves pinched and dried out, but I suspect that the hedge is protecting this one from the worst ravages of the weather.
Having not noticed this tree until this year, I am again thankful for the way that the lockdown has encouraged me to get out and about every single day. I have lived in East Finchley for ten years and yet have never seen this tree in all its peak autumn glory before. For all the miseries of this terrible year, there are still moments of joy to be had.
And now, back to my previous post. If you haven’t read it before, I hope you enjoy it, and I really do recommend the Clive James poem at the end.
Dear Readers, I have always been entranced by the delicate beauty of the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) but have never had much success with growing them. My first attempt was on my balcony in Islington, which is a most unhappy location for a woodland plant – the poor thing was alternatively blasted by the wind, baked by the sun and then nearly knocked flat with rain. The leaves shrivelled and fell off, and I soon realised that I’d need to grow something that liked being exposed to the elements. A second attempt, in the heavy clay soil of my current garden, also produced a sad specimen rather than the glorious autumn-hued plant that I saw on the label. Oh well. Recently, I have spent a lot of time admiring other people’s plants instead. Sometimes, one knows when one is beat.
Our local garden centre certainly has a wide range of very tempting cultivars, nearly all of which have the ‘hand-shaped’ leaves which give the plant its species name ‘palmatum’. Japanese maple comes originally not just from Japan but from the areas roundabout too: Korea, China, eastern Mongolia and southeastern Russia. In Japan, the plant has been cultivated for centuries, and has the alternative names of kaede (‘frog-hand’) and momiji (‘baby-hand’). In ‘the wild’, Japanese maple grows as an understorey shrub or small tree in woodland, rarely getting to taller than 10 metres. When mature, the tree has a characteristic dome shape, which is sometimes also emulated in Bonsai.
Even in the wild, Japanese maple is a very variable tree, with different leaf-forms, habits and colours. It also hybridises with other species. It is therefore no surprise that there are hundreds of different cultivars of the tree available today, with hundreds of others lost during the years. The photo below gives just some idea of the variety of leaf-forms alone.
For most people in the UK, the delight of a Japanese maple comes from its autumn leaf-colour. The saplings in the garden centre were largely dropping their leaves, but enough were holding on to get some idea of what the plant would look like in its prime.
I wasn’t aware that you could also grow Japanese maple for its bark colour, in much the same way as you would plant dogwood, but here is a cultivar that I’d never come across before. Apparently ‘coral-bark’ or ‘golden-bark’ Acers are ‘a thing’. I live and learn.
The flowers of the Japanese maple seem to be the least interesting thing about a plant that certainly punches above its weight in all other aspects. The fruit produces a winged seed, or samara, that needs to be stratified(frozen for a time) in order to germinate.
Reading the Royal Horticultural Society website on Japanese maples, I start to see what I’ve done wrong in the past. The trees need shade, which is obvious once you know what their natural habitat is. They also need consistent water conditions, and loathe being water-logged. All this makes me think that maybe I’ll try again, in a container this time. I have a shady garden, after all.
In Japan, the planting of a maple tree indicates that autumn is seen as a friend, as part of the cycle of life. People in North America often make special trips to view the ‘fall colour’, and a similar expedition may be made by Japanese people, although the viewing of the maples has more of a spiritual component: it is seen as a way of communing with nature, and with the spirits of nature. There is a fascinating discussion of this, and of the relationship between the Japanese maple and art, on the prints of Japan website, and I would like to quote just a smidgen here;
‘Bruce Feiler in his 1991 volume Learning to Bow describes making friends with a Japanese fellow who explained the background and significance of maple viewing to the Japanese: “Certain natural phenomena because of their splendor and singular beauty, developed almost a religious significance in ancient Japanese culture, where Shinto beliefs held that nature was the home of spirits who lived in the water, the land, and the trees. The mysterious transformation of green leaves into fiery reds and frosty yellows around the time of the harvest every year inspired awe among superstitious farmers. Just as a protocol around making tea… or painting calligraphy… so a proper form of viewing nature eventually evolved.” Feiler continued: “According to the Shinto code, the viewer on a proper leaf-viewing excursion should try to achieve a personal communion with the leaves, in a bond akin to the private communication between man and god at he heart of many Western religions. As Prince Genji once wrote to a lover, ‘A sheaf of autumn leaves admired in solitude is like damasks worn in the darkness of the night.’ By entering nature, one hopes to internalize the beauty of the leaves in one’s heart. Man enters nature, and nature, in turn, enters man.”’
The idea of the interconnection between nature and humanity, the notion that we don’t just go to admire the leaves but to internalise their beauty, seems part of what is missing in our lives these days.
The gardens in Kyoto are especially famous for their beautiful maples, and there is a rather fine little film here, which I guarantee will reduce your resting pulse-rate.
I was surprised to find that Japanese maple leaves are deep-fried and eaten as a snack in Osaka, and have been for at least a thousand years. The ones from the city of Minoh are especially prized – they are preserved in barrels of salt for a year, then dipped into tempura batter. Apparently the tree can also be ‘tapped’ for maple syrup, like its North American relatives, though the sap is not as sugary.
The leaves were thought to have preservative properties, and apples and root vegetables were sometimes buried in them in the belief that they would last longer.
And finally, friends, I cannot end this piece without including the poem ‘Japanese Maple’ by Clive James. When I was growing up, he was a constant feature on TV shows such as ‘Clive James on Television’, which introduced the UK to such shows as ‘Endurance’, a kind of Japanese precursor to ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’ and possibly even more sadistic. But later, I discovered him as a poet, and a philosopher, and grew to see beyond the ‘larrikin’ exterior to a man of great nuance and sensitivity. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2011 and wrote this poem as a farewell in 2013. He then survived a further six years following an experimental drug treatment, and in an interview described himself as ‘feeling embarrassed’ to still be alive. He died earlier this week, and I hope that he was able to see his tree aflame against the amber brick.
Japanese Maple by Clive James
Your death, near now, is of an easy sort. So slow a fading out brings no real pain. Breath growing short Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain Of energy, but thought and sight remain:
Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls On that small tree And saturates your brick back garden walls, So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?
Ever more lavish as the dusk descends This glistening illuminates the air. It never ends. Whenever the rain comes it will be there, Beyond my time, but now I take my share.
My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new. Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame. What I must do Is live to see that. That will end the game For me, though life continues all the same:
Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes, A final flood of colors will live on As my mind dies, Burned by my vision of a world that shone So brightly at the last, and then was gone.
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Well Readers, I have long resisted the allure of a peanut feeder, but during the lockdown I’ve spent so much time looking at the birds that I thought they deserved a change of diet, so here it is. I have hung it on the other side of the garden from most of the feeders, where there’s plenty of cover for the tiny birds, and indeed a blue tit was on this one before I’d even closed the kitchen door. Let’s see how it does.
The pace of life is certainly picking up in the garden, and some old favourites are back. The chaffinches are doing their mothy fluttering thing around the seed feeders (sunflower hearts, nothing but the best for my visitors).
There are charms of goldfinches popping in and out: they’ve been around all year but their numbers have probably been swollen by birds nipping down from Scandinavia. There is an esoteric way of telling the difference between UK and mainland European goldfinches that I shall have to investigate, and I will share with you when I’ve worked it out. Not that it matters, I’m just delighted to see them!
And of course there are the starlings, who seem almost as excited as they were earlier in the year.
They really are handsome birds, especially at this time of year when they’ve finished their moult but the winter hasn’t beaten up their feathers yet. What spiky birds they are, all jabbing beaks and flapping wings. And yet, the beauty of their murmurations always makes my heart sing. Here is something beautiful from Mary Oliver, just to help us through the long, dark evenings.
Dear Readers, this week I have been looking into the vexed question of the carbon footprint: what it is, the different ways in which we can look at it, and the ways in which we can compare countries and individuals. In a few weeks I’ll be doing my own carbon footprint calculation and no doubt I’ll be sharing the results with you, and trying to decide what the best ways to reduce it are. But firstly, as with ‘sustainability’, it’s become a bit of a difficult thing to assess.
The formal definition of the carbon footprint from my OU textbook is ‘the annual amount of greenhouse gas emissions (mainly carbon dioxide) that result form the activities of an individual or a group of people, especially from their use of energy and transport and consumption of food, goods and services’.
However, as you might expect this simple definition runs into a few problems when we look at the real-life statistics. Firstly, sometimes they’re expressed as carbon, sometimes as carbon dioxide, and sometimes as ‘carbon equivalents’ – this last definition includes gases such as methane and nitrous oxide, which although emitted in much lower amounts are extremely potent greenhouse gases – one tonne of methane (from belching cows, waste, manure spreading and decomposition) equals 21 tonnes of carbon dioxide, while one tonne of nitrous oxide (mainly from nitrogen fertilisers and industrial processes) equals a stonking 310 tonnes of carbon dioxide. One big problem with the melting of the permafrost is that the resultant exposed vegetation is releasing vast volumes of methane. But, I digress, as usual.
A further complication with the footprint idea is ‘where are the boundaries?’ Some footprints are only concerned with the direct emissions of a household: this comes down the fossil fuels that are burned by our cars and the public transport that we use (especially air travel), and that we use to heat our homes and power our appliances, and is known as the Production Perspective. Everything else: the carbon that is used in the transportation of our food and the import and creation of our clothes, our waste services and our schools and administration, are rolled into the carbon footprint of the sectors that produce them. By this measure, UK households are responsible for only about 20% of the greenhouse gas emissions of the country.
However, if you do include these indirect carbon costs, something called the Consumption perspective, things look very different. While some 10-20% of carbon emissions are still thought to be out of the control of the consumer, the rest is down to the individual choices that are made.
There are a couple of problems with making these choices, however. The first is that, clearly, the information to make good choices is often sadly lacking. How do we know how damaging it is when we purchase a punnet of British strawberries in April when they are local but out of season (and probably grown in a heated polytunnel) compared with a Spanish strawberry which has been freighted but probably grew outside? There is no consistent, accepted method of weighing up the carbon values of the goods and services that we consume, and most of the time, although we can try to buy local and seasonal, and to ask questions, we really have no clear idea.
The second issue is that not all consumers in a society are created equal. In the UK, the top 10% of wage earners have a carbon footprint more than three times the size of the poorest 10% – they take more holidays abroad, they have more and bigger cars, they have bigger homes to heat and they generally have more money to spend on consumer goods. I can’t help thinking that a campaign aimed at richer people who actually have the money to make changes might be worth doing.
It’s very important, when looking at global carbon footprint figures, to look at the carbon emissions per head of population, too. While the absolute figures for China, for example, are staggering (in 2015 they emitted 9680 million tonnes per year, nearly twice what the US, the second biggest emitter, managed), in terms of population they are somewhere in the middle of the list of countries, with a Chinese person having a carbon footprint of 7.5 tonnes, while someone in the US has a footprint of 17 tonnes.
There is no doubt that countries such as China and India are in a race to catch up with the likes of the US: they want the same standard of living for their people, the same level of industrialisation, and the possibility of economic stability and growth. There is also no doubt that the planet cannot survive if everyone has the same emissions as the average American or Briton.
This is why climate change, like most things, is a social justice issue. We cannot expect other countries to halt their development while those of the industrialised countries continue to grow. We cannot tell the poor farmer in Uganda (average carbon footprint 0.1 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year) that he cannot buy a tractor or a car. But we do need to look at what can be done to reduce the emissions of the richest countries in the world, and I suspect that, as yet, we have no idea of what changes to our lives that might involve. No one is talking much about the end of the petrol-driven car, the rationing of air traffic or the changes to household heating that might be needed. And we need to share technologies with the developing countries such as India and China so that they don’t follow the same fossil-fuel heavy route that we have. Will these things happen? Only time will tell, but I do fear that we are in a world of adaptation to what’s going to come, rather than prevention.
Dear Readers, I might have mentioned before that autumn is my favourite season – spring blossom is all very well, but there’s a frenetic energy then that isn’t exactly soothing. Whereas come October, it feels as if nature is tucking itself into bed, and putting on a final show before winter comes. Tonight the clocks go back in the UK, and so it will be dark by late afternoon for the next few months. In the meantime though, there is much to treasure in spite of the cold and wet.
The trees along Creighton Avenue are spectacular, but that’s nothing compared with the oaks and hornbeams once we walk into Coldfall Wood. Just have a look at these…
And as we walk along the path towards the allotments, a Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) bobs along in front of us, picking up small insects from under the leaves. We follow slowly behind him for about ten minutes, until he realises that we are there and loops back behind us to carry on foraging. The length of tail and the amount of bobbing is extraordinary – I caught a short video, but please excuse the quality.
Onwards! Coming out on to Muswell Hill Playing Fields, I see a lovely young horse chestnut sapling, with fresh green leaves and those sticky, shiny chestnut-coloured buds. It looks so healthy at this stage, but of course it hasn’t been nobbled by the various fungi and leaf-miners that are wreaking havoc with the trees in the UK. Also, I’m wondering what’s with the new leaves at this time of year, but then everything is a bit confused.
The brambles are still putting on quite a display of autumn colour.
I show my husband the Greater Burdock, and the way that the burrs are covered in tiny hooks. What a great way of latching onto a furry animal so that you can be transported for miles!
The white campion is still in flower too, along with the mallow.
The Black-headed Gulls are all over the Playing Fields, giving the crows a run for their money. In the south of the UK, a lot of these birds are winter visitors, who come inland to feast on earthworms and whatever they can find at landfill sites, whereas they are summer visitors to Scotland. I have always been rather fond of these elegant, quarrelsome birds.
Down by the children’s playground there is a magnificent pyracantha hedge, full to busting with orange berries. I read earlier this week that although birds seem to be much more attuned to red berries, these orange and yellow-berried plants are a boon later in the year, when the waxwings arrive, as this food will still be left for them, and for thrushes who become less fussy as the winter wears on. Certainly I shall be keeping an eye open for such exciting winter visitors.
And sometimes a little vignette presents itself, like this fallen leaf with a tiny Hedgerow Geranium peeping around the stem.
Then it’s back into the woods, past a magnificent oak tree…
And back on to Creighton Avenue. As we get towards the junction with the High Road, I just manage to catch the tail-end of a positive mini-murmuration of starlings. At this time of year they seem to get a touch of ‘migration-anxiety’ (the lovely German word for it is Zugunruhe), as if they remember that they’re supposed to be doing something but can’t remember what it is. Most starlings these days stick around in the UK over the winter (most of the population is, I think, eating suet pellets in my garden), but maybe they have an ancestral memory of slimmer pickings and long journeys. Whatever the reason, I shall keep my eye on them. The thought of a starling murmuration against the sunset over East Finchley is really rather exciting.
And finally, back on the High Road I notice a young Ginkgo tree, covered in sunshine-yellow leaves. I remember reading that Ginkgos drop all their leaves over a very short period of time, so I shall have to keep an eye on this too. It’s great to have a tree that has existed as a species for over 270 million years just across the road from the pharmacy.
Dear Readers, winter might be drawing in apace (at least in the UK), but one great pleasure of the darker months is the arrival of winter visitors. How many can you identify? There are so many beautiful birds that I’ve included 16 photos this week.
I have only included species that, according to my Crossley ID guide, are winter migrants only, with no resident or breeding populations (at least at the moment). So catch them while you can! A visit to your local wetlands centre or marsh certainly seems in order.
If you want to be ‘marked’, answers need to be in the comments by 5 p.m.(UK time) on Thursday 29th October. If you don’t want to be influenced by those who have gone before, write your answers down on a scrap of paper first.
Choose your answer from the list below. So, if you think the bird in Photo One is a ruddy turnstone, your answer is 1) a)
Well Readers, I thought this was a well-tricky quiz but you still did amazingly well – Fran and Bobby Freelove and Christine Burns got a full house with 15/15, and Sylvie got 13/15 so well done to all of you! Tomorrow’s quiz will be a little more ‘user-friendly’ shall we say…..
Dear Readers, as regular followers will know I have a habit of crashing to the ground for no obvious reason, so it was with some interest that I found this article in New Scientist that describes a positive epidemic of trips and tumbles. Between 1990 and 2017, the incidence of deadly falls around the world nearly doubled, and although the majority of these were in older people, there has also been a sharp increase in falls among younger people. What light could the article shed on the possible reasons why?
The first is that bipedalism is far from easy: humans are the only animals that walk in the way that we do, with our torsos balanced precariously over our legs. Other bipedal animals, such as the speedy and impressive ostrich, have their bodies balanced in a much more sensible way, and the structure of their legs is different too. The way that a toddler walks, which is in effect a series of stumbles in a particular direction, is basically the way that an adult walks, with a few refinements.
Furthermore, walking is an extremely complicated process: it involves not just our core and leg muscles, but also our sense of balance, our ability to make sense of what we see around us, and our ability to anticipate what’s coming when our foot next hits the ground. Most of the fine tuning takes place in the cerebellum, which acts as a processing unit for all the input from the outside world and from our muscles.
So far, so good. But wasn’t it ever thus? Why are we suddenly falling over so much? One explanation is linked to mental health, and I can testify to the fact that when I’m anxious or depressed, I’m much more likely to take a tumble. My most spectacular trip was on the day that I found out that my Mother was dying, with my second best occurring on the forecourt of the nursing home on the day after Mum and Dad had become residents (a particularly stressful time for all of us). Mental health problems seem to affect the cerebellum’s processing power, and with it our sense of balance. Plus, though this isn’t mentioned in the article, being preoccupied obviously impacts on your ability to notice the raggedy paving stone or the patch of ice in your path.
A standard test for balance is to ask the participant to stand on one leg for thirty seconds, with or without closing the eyes – if you can’t do this, you should probably be looking at improving your balance. But it’s good to start young. We learn a lot about balance as children, and our young people, in the West at least, have never been more sedentary. One recent study showed that children born in 2014 were 20% weaker than their counterparts in 1998. The lack of places for children to play outside, the diminishment of exercise in schools, the way that the outside world is perceived as a dangerous place, all add up to children who are increasingly unfit.
And, as we get older, all that sitting around on our computers (I speak as one who does a lot of this these days) also makes us less fit, less able to balance, and weaker. Dawn Skelton, researcher at Glasgow Caledonian University, UK, describes how things have changed:
“I commonly see people in their mid-40s that have worse balance than 70 or 80-year-olds,”
Fortunately, there are things that you can do to improve your balance at any age.
First of all, do the standing on one leg test, with or without your eyes closed. Make sure you have something to hold on to in case of disaster. Measure how long it takes you to start wobbling – Skelton says that you’ll notice it starting in your feet and ankles, and this is a very interesting point.
One way of improving your balance is from the bottom up – if your feet are stiff and numb, you have less chance of using them effectively. Skelton mentions rocking forward between heels and toes as a good exercise, and picking up a pen or a marble between your toes as a way to increase flexibility. Wearing minimal shoes in the house and going barefoot as often as possible helps to re-train us in the link between the ground, our feet and the rest of our body.
If you are already a gym bunny, you might want to consider swapping the treadmill for walking or running outside, or the stationery bike for a real one. Going out into the real world is much better exercise for your cerebellum, reminding it how to notice what is going on and adjust accordingly.
Interestingly, Skelton isn’t a big fan of yoga or pilates for improving balance on the move, because the poses held are usually stationery, and we need to learn how to keep upright when we’re on the move. For the same reason swimming, though great exercise, doesn’t help with balance on dry land.
The NHS recommend walking sidewise (with or without crossing your legs), step-ups and the heel-to-toe walk, which is surprisingly difficult. You can see a gentlemen in blue Bermuda shorts attempting these tricky manoeuvres here.
So, having read this article I now realise that walking is an inherently unstable activity, exacerbated by when we’re feeling emotionally wobbly. I see some standing on one leg and sideways walking in my future though, how about you? There are few things more embarrassing and potentially dangerous than falling over in the street, so it’s great to know that, however maladroit we are, there are things that we can do.